The Perils of Passion: Videogames, Higher Education and Precarious Labour

Atari 2600

(CC BY 2.0 Marcin Wichary)

The Jacobin Magazine has a fascinating article exploring the role played by a passion for gaming in facilitating the expansion and intensification of precarious labour within the video game industry. With seemingly endless cohorts of eager young gamers desperate to break into the industry, the employment practices encountered by the article’s author are increasingly the norm amongst design studios:

I was a QA engineer, and a QA’s job is to break things in-game, record how the things were broken, and then pass the information to the content creation team, who would hopefully fix them. It’s a common entry-level gig in the industry, one which gives you a broad knowledge of how things work to eventually launch something more specialized.

Most of my coworkers viewed their gigs at Funcom as having “arrived.” Almost all of them had come through Red Storm, one of the most respected studios in the country and an industry linchpin in North Carolina. The stories they told were galling: gross underpayment, severe overworking, and middle management treating the cubicle farm as a little fiefdom all their own.

Red Storm at the time employed the bulk of their QAs as temps. Lured in by promises of working their way up the ladder, scores of college kids and young workers would come in, ready to make it in the new Hollywood of the video game industry. The pay was minimum wage. The hours were long, with one of my immediate supervisors casually stating that he regularly worked at least 60 hours a week during his time there. Being temps, there were no benefits.

This would go on for the duration of a project, usually the final four months or so. When the temps weren’t needed anymore, it was common for groups of them to be rounded up, summarily let go without notice, and told that a call would be forthcoming if their services were needed again.

There were other stories – strange and mean ones, like the producer who waltzed into the QA office and asked if anyone was heading for the dumpster. When no one answered, she dropped a big bag of garbage in the middle of the floor, snarled, “I guess I’ll just leave this here, then,” and stalked off; the QA lead chewed them out since the woman was a producer, a project manager.

Everyone who came through related the same story of QA’s complete sequestration from the development team; nobody was allowed to speak to a “dev” directly, only through intermediaries, nor to enter the dev side of the building. The QA temps were a clear underclass on one floor, while full-time “real” video game workers occupied the other.

At the time, I didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t leave such a situation. The pay was awful, the hours too long, and it sounded like a rotten place to work if even a fraction of the stories I’d hear over lunch breaks were true.

But everyone kept returning to some variation of the same theme: it was their dream to work in the video game industry.

What makes the difference is passion. When people are dreaming of a career spent working on what they love, it becomes much easier to convince them to accept working conditions which are ungenerous at best and nakedly exploitative at worst. It becomes easier still when a limited number of positions within the industry are immensely oversubscribed, often by younger (and lesser experienced) hopefuls willing to work for less than established staff.

Again and again, when you read interviews or watch industry trade shows like E3, “passion” is used as a word to describe the ideal employee. Translated, “passion” means someone willing to buy into the dream of becoming a video game developer so much that sane hours and adequate compensation are willingly turned away. Constant harping on video game workers’ passion becomes the means by which management implicitly justifies extreme worker abuse .

And it works because that sense of passion is very real. The first time that you walk through the door at an industry job, you’re taken with it. You enter knowing that every single person in the building shares a common interest with you and an appreciation for the art of crafting a game. Friendships can be built immediately – to this day, many of my best friends arose from that immediate commonality we all had on the job.

This is an incredibly enticing proposition; no one who goes in is completely immune to it, no matter how far down the totem pole of life’s interests gaming is. And there are few other jobs quite like it.

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures. I recently wrote a piece for this publication which was, in part, about the replacement of traditional class, gender, and racial solidarity with a culture of consumption. Here, in the video game creation business, is the way capital harnesses geek culture to actively harm workers. The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

The parallels to higher education struck me early in this article, so it was oddly satisfying (though also rather depressing) to read about the role that private higher education is coming to play in the perpetuation of this deeply problematic state of affairs:

In addition to gaming’s notoriously manipulative management, one of the true villains of modern America decided to hitch itself to the burgeoning and increasingly chic industry in the 1990s. Just in time to latch onto the boom years of the Sony Playstation, for-profit universities began marketing sham programs to people hoping for a career in video game creation.

They’re still at it in 2013. The commercials come on late at night or, more rarely, the middle of the day. The times chosen aren’t an accident – they’re aimed at the jobless and underemployed. A wailing guitar or dubstep kicks in. Sometimes there’s an attractive woman or a fast car. The (almost always) male student recalls how nobody ever thought video games would make him money; they, he smirks, were wrong.

For-profit colleges sell a vision of a career which doesn’t exist. Moreover, they use a weird, sexy, completely untrue version of a video game career as bait for their other programs, showing a school where even the screenwriting students can hobnob with these cool slackers.

As with so much other hard data regarding the industry, figures from education are obfuscated and hard to come by. When I spoke with the National Center for Education Statistics, we had to set parameters on our searches that left out programs which I know exist, simply because many are filed under general computer science. Coupled with total enrollment figures being available only once every other year, and this data only being available from schools accepting federal student aid, makes the numbers on video game design programs nearly impossible to accurately assess.

Cracking what numbers are available reveals an unflattering portrait of for-profit video game programs. Such institutions do not, as a general rule, graduate many students as a percentage of their enrollment. But of the total degrees given in 2012 at schools with video game/interactive media programs, a significant percentage were in those programs –  in the 20 to 30 percent range. A significant number of graduates of the higher-profile for-profit schools hovered around 50 percent.

These degrees are largely worthless. I personally know several developers who, as a rule, summarily pass over applicants for anything but entry level QA positions if they hold a degree from such schools. Even prospective video game workers know these degrees aren’t going to get them in above the ground floor. Yet the figures prove that people keep signing up at for-profit colleges for a shot at their dreams – and the for-profits have no interest in dissuading them from doing so.

Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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